New deal sought for railroad bridge project in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — State and local officials planning the upcoming replacement of Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges will call a public meeting later this month to update residents on some key developments in the massive undertaking, including a new contract that will re-define the town’s specific responsibilities and role in the project.
The new pact will replace a 2013 grant agreement between Middlebury and the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) that placed project management responsibilities and liability solely on the town, according to Jim Gish, local project liaison.
“As you look through the (2013) agreement between the town and VTrans, the town is responsible for everything,” Gish said. “It also put all the liability for the project squarely on the town’s shoulders. The Middlebury Local Project Management Team recognized that the contract in place no longer squared with the realities of how the project is being managed.”
Middlebury officials want to have major input in the project, but don’t want the town to be liable for any potential cost overruns, property damage or remediation of any possible contamination to the adjacent Otter Creek.
“The purpose of the new agreement is to redefine rights, roles and accountabilities in light of the reality of how the project is being managed by VTrans,” Gish said. “A fundamental goal of the new agreement is to ensure that the town is protected from liability, whether that liability is shifted to the state as the owner of the project or to the contractor(s).”
Around a decade in the making, the $40 million project will involve replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row rail overpasses, which are deteriorating at a rapid pace. It’s a project slated to begin this fall and last into 2018, resulting in many months of noise, dust, traffic detours and artificial light in the downtown area.
A group of downtown property owners, represented by attorney Peter Langrock, has been urging the town to negotiate a contract that is more favorable to Middlebury. Gish believes that can be accomplished through the new pact, which he said will be completed this summer.
“From VTrans’ perspective, Middlebury’s level of engagement with this project is far beyond any level of involvement they have extended to a municipality,” Gish said. “So they are feeling their way into making this work and still maintain control over their infrastructure and money.”
Dean George, a member of the Local Project Management Team, said he’s generally pleased with the latest pace and progress in planning for a project that will have a major effect on the downtown.
“It’s frustrating at times, but we are making progress,” George said. “We are trying to make sure we deal with all the potential impacts on the community.”
Some indication of the amount of leverage the town has in dealing with a rail infrastructure project was apparent last Wednesday when a U.S. District Court judge ruled in a case where Shelburne wished to stop a Vermont Railway plan to put a salt transfer station in the town without regard to local zoning or permitting. Taken broadly, U.S. District Judge William Sessions ruled that because federal law regarding railroads pre-empts state or local laws, Vermont Railway was not subject to town zoning or permitting regulations at this stage of the project.
Gary von Stange, chair of the Shelburne selectboard, said in a statement that he believed the railway had altered its plans for the salt transfer station since the town got involved.
In other news bridges project news:
•  The town is reviewing a preliminary plan from project engineers VHB designed to prevent potential hazardous waste spills on the downtown rail tracks from getting into the Otter Creek.
Current plans call for a drainage system to be installed along the rail corridor. It will include a launch pit in the foundation of the former Lazarus building site, connected to a drilled micro-tunnel leading to an outfall pipe at the Otter Creek.
Gish said the spill containment plan involves a metal shutter that could be manually lowered (with a hand wheel) over the outflow pipe to the Otter Creek to stop hazardous waste from going into the river.
“There were no plans to treat water flowing into Otter Creek before the town raised its concerns,” Gish said. “VTrans and VHB have both responded and said, ‘Whatever the requirements are for this, let’s go above and beyond that.’
“I think there is a workable plan in place so that if there were a hazardous waste spill right in that tunnel area where it would flow into the drainage system, they could cap it off to prevent major spillage into Otter Creek,” Gish added.
•  Planners are “close” to sharing what Gish described as a plan to identify historic buildings that could be at risk for damage due to blasting and construction-related vibration during the height of the project. This plan will involve pre-construction surveys to establish the current condition of buildings in order to accurately establish any project-related damage. Buildings within the construction area will be equipped with vibration monitoring devices. The plan will also outline protocols for responding to construction-related damage, according to Gish.
“The plan is currently under internal review and is taking longer than expected, but that seems to be the nature of things with this project,” Gish said. “I am hoping to have that plan available for property owners in mid-July to review and offer comments on it.”
•  Plans for the first phase of the project are 85 percent complete. The first phase of the project — to begin late this fall and extend into the winter — will include construction of a temporary, paved access road from the end of Water Street, along the Otter Creek, to serve the Battell Block parking lot when the Merchants Row bridge is out of commission.
That first phase will also include the aforementioned drainage system along the rail corridor. This will include blasting, drilling, rock removal and micro-tunneling.
Phase one work will involve eight-hour workdays, as opposed to the anticipated 20-hour days when construction gets into full swing, Gish noted.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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